Pop Culture

What I Watched Last Night: American Ride

Cable packages often come with a few channels you never wanted, and will never watch. I really, really thought that BYUtv was one of those channels. I mean, I am not a member of the LDS church. I don’t care about college sports. I don’t watch the Catholic channel and I am Catholic. What on earth was I going to see on that channel that could possibly be of interest?

American Ride, apparently.

The show is something of an oddity. Former NFL linebacker Stan Ellsworth rides around on his Harley Davidson wearing denim and leather and tells about American history. Each episode is a half hour long and covers a small thematically chosen bit of  history; so far he’s focused on the Revolutionary War and the lead-up to the Civil War. His base of operations is a curiously styled garaged that features stacks of books and busts of presidents next to work benches and engine parts. From there he’ll ride out to historic sites, and periodicity there will be stills of period paintings and photos to help illustrate his point.

Not really what you expect from a history show.

It was my dad who turned me on to the show. If ever there was a target audience for a big dude riding a bike and talking American history, my dad is it, having a Harley of his own and being something of a history buff. And part of the fun is having my dad in the room when I watch the show. But Stan Ellsworth has an abundance of charismatic charm that makes for an entertaining watch. He’s so far removed from the norms of academia that he, by virtue of his personality alone, makes all of his topics seem instantly accessible.

His presentation of history is not without flaws. Like most presentations of American history, it’s rather white and male, and the tone is overwhelmingly “‘Murrica, Fuck Yeah!” at times. I’ve only noticed the Indian Removal Act mentioned in passing, for example (Davy Crockett opposed it when he was a congressman, apparently). But then he also occasionally drops a truth bomb too. In “Different Visions, Different Dreams,” an episode adressing the causes of the Civil War, he had the following to say:

About 15 percent of the southern population at that time owned slaves. So what we’re talking about here is a very small, very wealthy, very elite aristocracy running the machinery of the southern government. So when the senators and congressmen from the southern states… decry the efforts of the northern states or the federal government to take away their state’s rights, they’ve either checked their morality or their common sense at the door. They have two problems. Number one, chattel bondage is wrong, there’s no way around it. Number two, under the Constitution, states don’t have rights. States have powers. Shared powers with the federal government that the people have given them. All the rights remain with the people.

Hooo shi… It’s almost like that war wasn’t fought over “rights” at all… I am eyeballing you, confederate flag people.

But I think what I like about the show best is its middle finger to the sky on the stance that anti-intellectualism is somehow masculine or desirable. And that is so wonderfully refreshing in the American culture. Stan is a man’s man, for sure, and yet, with a small joke about it, he dons white cotton gloves to handle an old manuscript, he takes pleasure in visiting museums, and he finds history interesting. No bragging about being a rough and tumble ignorant redneck. No passing this off as stuff for nerds only. Genuine interest. It’s like a grown up version of the whole “learning is fun!” stuff we got as kids. And I’m hooked.

By Opifex

Opifex is a former art student, unrepentant nerd, and occasional annoying liker of things before they were cool. She keeps two sets of polyhedral dice in her purse, in case the first set stops being lucky. That's kind of how she rolls.

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